99 years of Miss America; Bess Myerson’s tale subject of documentary



This week, women from across the country traditionally would gather in Atlantic City to find out who would be the new Miss America.

Last year’s event was held at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun in December. But, the pageant was born to be held in the weekend following Labor Day.

This year, current Miss America Camille Schrier, will hold her title longer than intended as the pandemic has put the national pageant on hold until 2021.

Despite the pause, the Miss America Organization is celebrating its 99th anniversary of honoring scholarship, talent, crowns and sashes.

Press materials from the organization explained, “The ‘Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest,’ known as the first Miss America Pageant, was started by local businessmen in an effort to extend the shore tourism season past Labor Day. On September 8, 1921, sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman was crowned the ‘Golden Mermaid. It wasn’t until 1922 that the Boardwalk contest formally became ‘Miss America.’”

“Over her 99 years,” MAO explained, “Miss America has grown from a bathing beauties pageant to one of the nation’s leading women’s empowerment organization. Miss America women have gone on to become household names, corporate executives, politicians, educators, doctors, lawyers, and more.”

The Miss America Organization is now a recognized non-profit and serves as one of the largest providers of scholarship assistance to young women in the world.

“It is truly remarkable to see the Miss America Organization into its 100th year,” said Shantel Krebs, interim CEO and board chair in a written statement. “Miss America is one of our nation’s most cherished traditions and as we work toward our centennial celebration,  we encourage America to stay tuned.  We have a lot of excitement in store for 2021.”

The Miss America Organization will announce the 100th Anniversary competition date and location in the coming months.

For those Miss America fans with a penchant for history, a new documentary explores one of the most poignant moments of the organization.

On Sept. 8, 1945, just months after the liberation of Nazi death camps and the end of the Holocaust, Bess Myerson was crowned. Besides carrying the typical qualities of a Miss America, Myerson was Jewish.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of this equal opportunity event, filmmaker David Arond produced “The One and Only Jewish Miss America,” a 51-minute documentary that premiered Tuesday, Sept. 8, at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Press materials for the documentary explain “The film traces Bess’s journey from childhood, when she thought she was ugly and gangly, through her reluctant entrance in the Miss New York City pageant, arranged without her knowledge by her sister, and her surprising Miss America victory. A concert pianist and the pageant’s only college graduate, Bess Myerson represented a new kind of post-war poise, intelligence, and feminism.”

“In spite of antisemitism and threatening calls to pageant judges warning them against selecting a Jew, Bess took the title home to her family’s one-bedroom apartment in the Shalom Aleichem housing project in the Bronx,” press materials explained. “It was a victory not just for Bess, the middle daughter of struggling immigrants from Russia, but also an all-American validation for Jewish-Americans and immigrants all over the country.”

The film also covers Bess Myerson’s fight against discrimination. Three of the five pageant sponsors withdrew their support rather than endorse a Jew. She did not receive the promised new Ford car nor the $5,000 scholarship.

“The One and Only Jewish Miss America” recreates the era with 1940s music, vintage photographs and film clips. Arond (PBS: “Mother of the Year,” “Houseboat Philosopher,” “On the Internet” series, etc.) interviews Barra Grant, Bess Myerson’s daughter and an accomplished screenwriter, and Abraham Foxman, a friend of Bess’s and director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League. Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and criminal justice professor, California State University, San Bernardino, shares perspectives on anti-Semitism then and now.